High-Speed Sync above / ambient sunlight light below.

High-speed Sync is, without a doubt, the feature that sets dedicated small flash apart from all other types of flash. By “dedicated small flash” I mean that if you are a Canonista, then you are shooting with Canon Speedlites, and if you are a Nikonian, then you are shooting with Nikon Speedlights. By “all other types of flash” I mean , 3rd-party speedlights (like Vivitar and Sunpak), monolights (like Alien Bees) and portable/studio strobes (like an Elincrhom Ranger RX or Profoto Pro-8). You have to have a dedicated Speedlite to shoot in High-Speed Sync.

If you’re not familiar with High-Speed Sync, the short version is that it is a special flash mode in which the Speedlite fires an ultra-fast series of flashes rather than one big pop. The pulse is so fast, topping 30,000 cycles per second, that it appears as a regular pop to us. What High-Speed Sync does is turn your Speedlite into a continuous light source so that you can shoot at virtually any shutter speed. When firing in normal mode, the maximum shutter speed on your camera for flash work is in the vicinity of 1/200″. [For more details on the basics of High-Speed Sync, read my article Simple Truths About High-Speed Sync over on PixSylated.] Thanks to High-Speed Sync, I can use super-fast shutter speeds to dim the ambient light (the sun) and selectively light my subject with a Speedlite. In short, High-Speed Sync gives me the ability to create images that I otherwise could not shoot.

So, here’s where I started: mid-afternoon sun coming straight at the camera. The first shot I always take is with my camera in Tv (shutter-priority automatic) at or close to the sync speed for my camera. I want to see how the camera sees the ambient light. There is no flash in the following shot.

Starting out: Shutter-priority automatic, 1/160", f/7.1, ambient only, no flash

Then, out of curiosity, I will typically turn the on-camera Speedlite on in E-TTL mode. In my opinion, the following shot demonstrates how the Canon engineers view the Speedlite’s function: as a really sophisticated fill-flash device that will rescue shots for those who do not know what they are doing. Don’t take this the wrong way—I think that’s a perfectly acceptable goal given that most people never want to open the user manual. I can tell, because you are reading this, that you are among the small minority who truly want to know how to craft light rather than just accept the mediocre. So, let’s press on.

Shutter-priority, 1/160", f/7.1, on-camera 580EX in E-TTL

The shot above, in my opinion, shows an on-camera Speedlite at its best. That is not to suggest that I think this is a good photo. If your goal is to make a snapshot of your son pretending that he’s Secret Agent Tony of the Secret Rampage Service, then you might think “o.k. my work here is done.” However, as a Speedliter, you know that our work is about making photos, not taking photos.

The first step, yep, is to use an off-camera Speedlite. If you have a single Speedlite, then I hope you have the extra-long cord that I talk about in this article. If you have two or more Speedlites, I hope one is capable of working as a Master (580EX II, 580EX or 550EX). For this shoot, I started with an ST-E2 Wireless Transmitter on the camera. Unfortunately it would not fire the Slave Speedlite—either because the sun was too bright or because the Slave was just outside the ST-E2’s angle of coverage. Either way, if all I had was an ST-E2 and a single Speedlite, the shoot would have stopped right then and there. [Note: I really do not like the ST-E2. Do not buy one. I will share the many reasons soon.] So, I switched to a 580EX on camera as Master and panned the head so that it pointed at the Slave. I also configured the Master so that it would communicate with the Slave without firing during the actual exposure (a.k.a. I disabled the Master because I did not want any on-camera flash in the shot).

The ST-E2 Wireless Transmitter would not fire the Slave: either because the sun was too bright or the angle to the Slave was too wide.

The head of the 580EX Master was panned to point at the Slave. It fired the Slave every time.

Starting with an off-camera Speedlite in High-Speed Sync:

  • activate High-Speed Sync on the Master (push the H-button on the back),
  • switch the camera to Manual mode
  • dial the shutter speed to just beyond the normal sync speed (the following shot was taken at 1/250″)
  • use an aperture that will give me the depth of field that I desire (for this series, I stayed at f/7.1)
  • zoom the head of the Slave to 105mm (because I know that I want fall-off)
  • shoot a test shot with the Master Speedlite set to E-TTL (because I want to see what happens)

Camera in Manual, 1/250", f/7.1, Master E-TTL, Master disabled for exposure, off-camera Slave zoomed to 105mm

The result is a tad bit more interesting than the non-HSS shot above, but the ambient light from the sun is still much too strong. So, I’ll start dialing the shutter speed down to find a speed that knocks the sunlight back to a level that I like. The first jump, to 1/1600″, is about 3-stops. Then I dial the shutter speed down in whole-stop increments.

Manual mode on camera, 1/1600", f/7.1, 580EX at 1/1 zoomed to 105mm

Manual mode in camera, 1/3200", rest same as above

Camera in Manual mode, 1/6400", rest same as above

In case you are wondering, this is what the camera saw at 1/6400″ without the Speedlite.

Camera in Manual, 1/6400", no flash

Some final thoughts/comments:

  • All of the above images are straight from the camera. I am a photographer, not a retoucher. I shoot to make the best images that I can. Taking a normal sync shot and applying a vignette in Photoshop does not deliver the same quality of light that you get when shooting in HSS.
  • High-Speed Sync greatly reduces the output power of the Speedlite (because it has to recycle so fast). The drop is about 2.5 stops. I will provide those details in an upcoming article.
  • Due to the power drop, you have to move your Speedlite in really close. As you can see above, it’s about 15″ from Tony’s face.
  • If you need to squeeze out every drop of power from your Speedlite, switch from E-TTL to Manual mode. The juice that would have gone to the E-TTL pre-flash will then be added to the main flash.
  • The zoom setting on the Slave is a key part of getting this look. I will shoot a series at each zoom setting and will share the results in a day or two.
  • It’s so important as a Speedliter to understand that how your camera sees is not how you see.
  • It’s also important to understand that your viewer sees your photograph and knows nothing about how it was made.

Continued in Part Two.

High-Speed Sync turns the outdoors into a studio.


17 Responses to Dimming The Sun With High-Speed Sync: Part One

  1. hfng says:

    Hi Syl! Thanks for covering HSS.

    I always wondered which one saves more power on the flash assuming in both cases you're using manual flash and want to dim the background during a sunny day:

    1. Non-HSS with small aperture (high fstop) and 1/250s. Flash has to work harder since aperture is small.

    2. HSS with large aperture (say f/2.8) and 1/6400s. Although aperture is large flash has to work harder because of HSS.

    So which one would u go for?

  2. Mihai says:

    very good information in this post – i've been waiting for a new post for a while.

    it's quite difficult to kill the ambient light in direct sunlight, even at f/22 -1/200 – ISO100, and going to f/22 takes a toll on sharpness due to diffraction.

  3. Kevin says:

    Great stuff Syl!!
    Reading it all and eagerly waiting for more!

    Thank you

  4. Dave says:

    Very interesting, didn't know that I was a "Canonista", I'll have to borrow that term for future use. Enjoy your posts, keep up the good work and looking forward to meeting you in Atlanta.

  5. Mark says:

    Syl, looking at those shots although the 580 is on 1/1 power all the way through as you go 1/1600>1/3200>1/6400, and although the ambient gets darker on the car bonnet, Tony's face gets brighter. Why?

  6. […] Syl Arena: Dimming the sun with high speed sync. […]

  7. Ivan says:

    As a newbie strobist, I'm so glad you are sharing these great Canon Speedlite lessons. Thank you!

  8. Candice says:

    How do you disable the Master?

  9. ivan says:

    Its true,but whit high aperture (8,11,13……) i kill the flash too.It´s no good fo batteries and flash 🙂
    It´s easy to wait for evening ,why shot on midday ,when i will use the flash to make a dramatic sky or kill backround.

  10. Brian Carey says:

    My first attempt at (of camera) high speed sync @ 1/6000 second. Oh the possibilities! :-)))


  11. […] a good substitute. For more details on HSS, check out these articles: Simple Truths About HSS, Dimming The Sun – Part 1, and Part […]

  12. Josh says:

    This is great stuff! I am very new to photography and I want to create photos, not just take them (like you said). I love flash photography, but I’m not very knowledgeable how to manipulate light. After reading this article, I started with your settings and eventually started changing them and utilizing other lenses. My results came out looking like a skillfully lit scene and not just a flashed snapshot. I use photoshop to process because I don’t know how to create photos with crafty lighting. This article helped me cut that umbilicle cord! I know this article is old, but it still helped this newbie, thanks!

  13. […] balance was manually set. To learn more about trigger flashes at super high shutter speeds, see Syl Arena’s tutorial on using high speed sync with Canon […]

  14. […] the subject selectively with the flash. For more information on High-Speed Sync, please see what Syl Arena has to […]

  15. Yucel says:

    I been looking the Profoto B1’s… Like to see what can be done w a tree full of speed lites first… I have four…one will command the other three…

    Any thoughts?

    And particularly on using a softbox… what can you get in terms of distance and f stop w say 3 RT 600 on a flash tree in a soft box?

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